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5 Teams Aim for the Moon This Year—and the $20 Million Google Lunar XPrize

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The TeamIndus ECA rover. Image Credit: TeamIndus

 
Though space agencies from the Soviet Union, the United States, and China have notched Moon landings, no private company or organization has ever managed to duplicate the task. No private effort has even managed to achieve a launch manifest for a rocket—until now.

The Google Lunar XPrize is a competition to land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon, have it travel 500 meters, and provide video and imagery of the whole affair. The prize for being first: $20 million. The second-place team gets $5 million, and another $5 million goes to assorted prizes. 

In 2007, more than 30 teams registered to compete for that $30 million. Today, only five remain. Each one has a launch manifest (a scheduled ride) on one of four different rockets. To remain in the competition and win some part of the $30 million bounty, the missions must launch this year.

Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, senior director of the Google Lunar XPrize, tells mental_floss, “What we are the most excited about is the fact that all five teams are approaching this challenge in unique ways, and we were thrilled to have five finalist teams come from all parts of the world.”

The race is fraught with perils, and despite having been manifested for flight, even reaching the launch pad will require the full measure of each team’s engineering know-how. Still, the Google Lunar XPrize foundation is confident that this is the year. “We are very optimistic that at least one team will launch by the December 31, 2017 deadline,” says Gonzales-Mowrer.

Meet the five teams to learn more about their mission goals and specs.

1. MOON EXPRESS

An illustration of the Moon Express MX-1E lander approaching the lunar surface. Image Credit: Moon Express

 
In 2010, Bob Richards, Naveen Jain, and Barney Pell formed Moon Express with the goal of applying the Silicon Valley philosophy of moving fast and iterating to the Moon problem. They’ve certainly applied Silicon Valley dollars, garnering $45 million so far in a fundraising effort that goes far beyond the competition. The company intends to establish a resource mining operation on the lunar surface, seeking such elements as oxygen and hydrogen that might be converted to water, breathable air, and used as an oxidizer for spacecraft propellant. Jain has described the Moon as the “eighth continent,” and he certainly has a point: At 37.9 million square miles, the lunar surface is smaller than Asia but larger than Africa.

The mission is set to launch this year atop a New Zealand-built Electron rocket from the company Rocket Lab USA. The Moon Express lander is called MX-1E, and it will perform a powered landing on the lunar surface, using its thrusters to perform a series of “micro hops” to cross the finish line. The spacecraft will be powered with hydrogen peroxide propellant—the same stuff that’s likely in your medicine cabinet, H2O2. Why hydrogen peroxide? Because hydrogen and oxygen harvested from the Moon might one day be able to be refined to fuel a future Moon Express spacecraft.

Such thinking is in keeping with the competition’s long-term goals, explains Gonzales-Mowrer, which includes stimulating "the larger conversation about building a lunar economy and bringing commercial enterprise to the Moon."

2. SPACEIL

An artist's rendition of the SpaceIL combo lander/hopper. Image Credit: SpaceIL

 
Like MoonEx, SpaceIL is no garage operation. The nonprofit organization is fueled by a $36 million budget. Their goal isn’t mineral mining, however, but inspiring an “Apollo effect”—that is spurring a STEM renaissance in Israel, where the company is based. To some extent, the competition is a race to be the fourth nation to plant a flag on the Moon, with Japan and India competing against Israel.

SpaceIL was founded by Eran Privman, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari, and Yonatan Winetraub—a deep bench of electrical and computer engineers. It was the first team in the Google Lunar XPrize to be manifested on a launch vehicle: a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. To travel the 500 meters, their spacecraft, which vaguely resembles a frog, will not roll on tracks or wheels, or skip along gently, but rather will make a single, giant hop to the finish line.

3. SYNERGY MOON

A March 2014 test of an Interorbital Systems Neptune rocket with a Synergy Moon payload aboard. Image Credit: Synergy Moon/Interorbital Systems

 
Led by Nebojsa Stanojevic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 15 countries are represented on the Synergy Moon team. Their hope is that their success thus far—and hopefully achievements to come—will foster other such cooperative international efforts, and prove what is possible when one approaches the world “with the creative drive of an artist and the problem-solving skills of an engineer,” they say.

Their pair of lunar vehicles are called the Tesla prospector rover and the Tesla surveyor rover. Though Synergy Moon has kept recent details and designs of the rovers close to its chest, in keeping with the artistic and international engagement aspects of the mission, they plan for “tourists, scientists, and prospectors to take control of the rovers for virtual excursions on the Moon,” according to their website. The robots will be launched on a Neptune rocket by Interorbital Systems. Upon arrival at the Moon, a small “tube sat” will deploy from the cruiser to establish communications, and the lander will begin its ascent. Once safely settled in Moon dust, the rovers will get to work, one returning high-resolution images, the other sniffing the lunar regolith for resources for eventual harvest and refinement.

4. TEAM INDUS

Members of TeamIndus with their lander. Image Credit: XPrize Foundation

Last year Team Indus won a $1 million milestone prize for its lander technology—money that has thrust the privately funded team forward in its likelihood of reaching the lunar surface. This is the only team from India, and, like SpaceIL, they hope their mission will be a sort of robotic ambassador for its country that will pay dividends by engaging and invigorating citizens, private industry, and even the Indian government, whose space agency is already making great strides at Mars. Rahul Narayan, a software engineer and entrepreneur from Delhi, is the mission’s leader.

The Team Indus rover ECA—seen at top—has a passing resemblance to Nintendo’s Robotic Operating Buddy. The vehicle is solar powered, all-aluminum, and has four-wheel drive, and among its scientific payload is a high definition camera made by the French Space Agency. The rover will land autonomously in the Sea of Showers, roll away from the lander platform, link up with Earth, and begin transmitting. It is a straightforward lunar lander and rover—to the extent that it’s possible for any craft operating on the Moon to be described as such.

5. HAKUTO

Hakuto is Japanese for “white rabbit,” and refers to a Japanese story about a rabbit that can be seen in the crater shadows of the moon. The description is apt, too, as the Hakuto rover, shiny and sharp, weighs less than four kilograms, making it the world’s smallest planetary exploration rover.

“To reduce launch cost,” Tomoya Mori of Hakuto tells mental_floss, “we need to make our rover as light and small as possible. At the same time, however, the rover must meet the requirements to successfully accomplish the mission.” They achieved this miniaturization using microrobotics technology and commercial, off-the-shelf products.

Under mission leader Takeshi Hakamada, the mission has forged partnerships with nine players in the aerospace industry, who are assisting with everything from instrumentation to orbital design. Notably, Hakuto will catch a ride to the Moon on the same rocket as Team Indus—an Indian Space Research Organization rocket called the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet
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Space
Astronomers Observe a New Kind of Massive Cosmic Collision for the First Time
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NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

For the first time, astronomers have detected the colossal blast produced by the merger of two neutron stars—and they've recorded it both via the gravitational waves the event produced, as well as the flash of light it emitted.

Physicists believe that the pair of neutron stars—ultra-dense stars formed when a massive star collapses, following a supernova explosion—had been locked in a death spiral just before their final collision and merger. As they spiraled inward, a burst of gravitational waves was released; when they finally smashed together, high-energy electromagnetic radiation known as gamma rays were emitted. In the days that followed, electromagnetic radiation at many other wavelengths—X-rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves—were released. (Imagine all the instruments in an orchestra, from the lowest bassoons to the highest piccolos, playing a short, loud note all at once.)

This is the first time such a collision has been observed, as well as the first time that both kinds of observations—gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation—have been recorded from the same event, a feat that required co-operation among some 70 different observatories around the world, including ground-based observatories, orbiting telescopes, the U.S. LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), and European Virgo gravitational wave detectors.

"For me, it feels like the dawning of a next era in astrophysics," Julie McEnery, project scientist for NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, one of the first instruments to record the burst of energy from the cosmic collision, tells Mental Floss. "With this observation, we've connected these new gravitational wave observations to the rest of the observations that we've been doing in astrophysics for a very long time."

A BREAKTHROUGH ON SEVERAL FRONTS

The observations represent a breakthrough on several fronts. Until now, the only events detected via gravitational waves have been mergers of black holes; with these new results, it seems likely that gravitational wave technology—which is still in its infancy—will open many new phenomena to scientific scrutiny. At the same time, very little was known about the physics of neutron stars—especially their violent, final moments—until now. The observations are also shedding new light on the origin of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs)—extremely energetic explosions seen in distant galaxies. As well, the research may offer clues as to how the heavier elements, such as gold, platinum, and uranium, formed.

Astronomers around the world are thrilled by the latest findings, as today's flurry of excitement attests. The LIGO-Virgo results are being published today in the journal Physical Review Letters; further articles are due to be published in other journals, including Nature and Science, in the weeks ahead. Scientists also described the findings today at press briefings hosted by the National Science Foundation (the agency that funds LIGO) in Washington, and at the headquarters of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany.

(Rumors of the breakthrough had been swirling for weeks; in August, astronomer J. Craig Wheeler of the University of Texas at Austin tweeted, "New LIGO. Source with optical counterpart. Blow your sox off!" He and another scientist who tweeted have since apologized for doing so prematurely, but this morning, minutes after the news officially broke, Wheeler tweeted, "Socks off!") 

The neutron star merger happened in a galaxy known as NGC 4993, located some 130 million light years from our own Milky Way, in the direction of the southern constellation Hydra.

Gravitational wave astronomy is barely a year and a half old. The first detection of gravitational waves—physicists describe them as ripples in space-time—came in fall 2015, when the signal from a pair of merging black holes was recorded by the LIGO detectors. The discovery was announced in February 2016 to great fanfare, and was honored with this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. Virgo, a European gravitational wave detector, went online in 2007 and was upgraded last year; together, they allow astronomers to accurately pin down the location of gravitational wave sources for the first time. The addition of Virgo also allows for a greater sensitivity than LIGO could achieve on its own.

LIGO previously recorded four different instances of colliding black holes—objects with masses between seven times the mass of the Sun and a bit less than 40 times the mass of the Sun. This new signal was weaker than that produced by the black holes, but also lasted longer, persisting for about 100 seconds; the data suggested the objects were too small to be black holes, but instead were neutron stars, with masses of about 1.1 and 1.6 times the Sun's mass. (In spite of their heft, neutron stars are tiny, with diameters of only a dozen or so miles.) Another key difference is that while black hole collisions can be detected only via gravitational waves—black holes are black, after all—neutron star collisions can actually be seen.

"EXACTLY WHAT WE'D HOPE TO SEE"

When the gravitational wave signal was recorded, on the morning of August 17, observatories around the world were notified and began scanning the sky in search of an optical counterpart. Even before the LIGO bulletin went out, however, the orbiting Fermi telescope, which can receive high-energy gamma rays from all directions in the sky at once, had caught something, receiving a signal less than two seconds after the gravitational wave signal tripped the LIGO detectors. This was presumed to be a gamma-ray burst, an explosion of gamma rays seen in deep space. Astronomers had recorded such bursts sporadically since the 1960s; however, their physical cause was never certain. Merging neutron stars had been a suggested culprit for at least some of these explosions.

"This is exactly what we'd hoped to see," says McEnery. "A gamma ray burst requires a colossal release of energy, and one of the hypotheses for what powers at least some of them—the ones that have durations of less than two seconds—was the merger of two neutron stars … We had hoped that we would see a gamma ray burst and a gravitational wave signal together, so it's fantastic to finally actually do this."

With preliminary data from LIGO and Virgo, combined with the Fermi data, scientists could tell with reasonable precision what direction in the sky the signal had come from—and dozens of telescopes at observatories around the world, including the U.S. Gemini telescopes, the European Very Large Telescope, and the Hubble Space Telescope, were quickly re-aimed toward Hydra, in the direction of reported signal.

The telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile were well-placed for getting a first look—because the bulletin arrived in the morning, however, they had to wait until the sun dropped below the horizon.

"We had about eight to 10 hours, until sunset in Chile, to prepare for this," Maria Drout, an astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories in in Pasadena, California, which runs the Las Campanas telescopes, tells Mental Floss. She was connected by Skype to the astronomers in the control rooms of three different telescopes at Las Campanas, as they prepared to train their telescopes at the target region. "Usually you prepare a month in advance for an observing run on these telescopes, but this was all happening in a few hours," Drout says. She and her colleagues prepared a target list of about 100 galaxies, but less than one-tenth of the way through the list, by luck, they found it: a tiny blip of light in NGC 4993 that wasn't visible on archival images of the same galaxy. (It was the 1-meter Swope telescope that snagged the first images.)

A NEW ERA OF ASTROPHYSICS

When a new star-like object in a distant galaxy is spotted, a typical first guess is that it's a supernova (an exploding star). But this new object was changing very rapidly, growing 100 times dimmer over just a few days while also quickly becoming redder—which supernovae don't do, explains Drout, who is cross-appointed at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. "We ended up following it for three weeks or so, and by the end, it was very clear that this [neutron star merger] was what we were looking at," she says.

The researchers say they can't be sure if the resulting object was another, larger neutron star, or whether it would have been so massive that it would have collapsed into a black hole.

As exciting as the original detection of gravitational waves last year was, Drout is looking forward to a new era in which both gravitational waves and traditional telescopes can be used to study the same objects. "We can learn a lot more about these types of extreme systems that exist in the universe, by coupling the two together," she says.

The detection shows that "gravitational wave science is moving from being a physics experiment to being a tool for astronomers," Marcia Rieke, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who is not involved in the current research, tells Mental Floss. "So I think it's a pretty big deal."

Physicists are also learning something new about the origin of the heaviest elements in the periodic table. For many years, these were thought to arise from supernova explosions, but spectroscopic data from the newly observed neutron star merger (in which light is broken up into its component colors) suggests that such explosion produce enormous quantities of heavy elements—including enough gold to put Fort Knox to shame. (The blast is believed to have created some 200 Earth-masses of gold, the scientists say.) "It's telling us that most of the gold that we know about is produced in these mergers, and not in supernovae," McEnery says.

Editor's note: This post has been updated.

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